Many universities now use contextualised data at the point of admission to university. All this means is universities consider additional information that places an applicant’s attainment within the wider context in which it has been obtained.

This might come from knowing more about the applicant’s school (e.g. how did the applicant perform against the school average, how the school perform against the national average), the applicant and her family (e.g. are they the first in their family to go to university), or the area they grew up (e.g. are they from an area of high deprivation).

Universities are doing this for a number of reasons but largely because if they don’t know the context of achievement it is possible that they will miss excellent candidates whose achievements have been obscured by educational disadvantage. Contextualised admissions can help universities’ student cohort become more diverse – with obvious knock-on effects for the professions. This is not a silver bullet to the problems of social mobility, inequality and problems with educational attainment. Contextualised admissions are simply part of the armoury of selection tools at the disposal of universities which include looking at exam results, personal statements, interviews and (in some cases) additional testing.

Contextual data is generally used at the margins and always in combination with other criteria. So the candidates who are admitted to university are still high quality (this is seen by the fact that many go on to succeed). Contextualised admissions will only help the professions become more diverse if the professions are aware of the effect of their own recruitment practices. For instance, a firm requiring top grades at Highers will undermine the work of a university which has used contextualised admissions.

Case study of contextualised admissions

Mohammed is a straight A student. He went to one of Scotland’s leading state schools – one that is routinely top of the league tables. He has professional parents. Both attended university. Sarah is a straight A student. No one in her family went to university and she went to a low achieving school. Craig went to a very low achieving school. No one in his family went to university. He got AAB. Who has the most potential? Who would you select? Decisions over admissions are rarely as straightforward as this case study may suggest. There are lots of complex factors to take into account. Factoring in contextual data – information about the trajectory and background – is rational and reasonable for any organisation making judgements on merit and potential.